Clarifying the Standards vs. Market Reform Debate

NRO’s Ramesh Ponnuru has written a series of interesting posts on the debate between those who believe education reformers should focus on improving the curriculum in the government schools and those who advocate focusing on free market reforms. He agrees with Jay Greene that the two approaches are compatible and should be pursued in tandem, and questions Sol Stern for wishing to emphasize curriculum reform over market reform.

But there is some equivocation going on here. Most “instructionists” are not simply advocating improving the curricula in place in our existing state school systems. Most are in fact campaigning for national standards and testing, as former Republican education secretaries Bill Bennett and Rod Paige did here, or for a full-blown national curriculum, as their erstwhile colleague Diane Ravitch has done for more than a decade.

More central planning is not better than less central planning. The fact that the former Soviet Union was able to smother vast multitudes beneath the pall of its five-year plans did not produce winning results. The instructionists who seek to homogenize American education are detached from reality, imagining that new national standards, testing, or curricula would invariably be better — and remain better — than their counterparts adopted at the state level today. There is no reason to believe this. The same dysfunctional incentive structure that has produced the faddism and quackery in state curricula (e.g., California, reading instruction, late 80’s through mid 90s…) would apply at the national level. Our political leaders must offer only the appearance of educational success or improvement to garner votes, not the reality — and they could and would do this by dumbing down standards and/or tests just as we have seen at the state level. At least now, with 50 separate state school monopolies, the hi-jinx perpetrated in one state can be contrasted with the actions of others. With a single set of standards, no domestic points of comparison would remain, making it that much easier for standards to be manipulated.

Furthermore, national standards/curricula would raise the stakes for the school wars that have been dividing communities in this country since the inception of state schooling. What history should we teach? Should math be fuzzy or traditional? Should reading instruction be phonetic or wholistic? Add to all this the fact that the U.S. Constitution grants the federal government no mandate to meddle in matters instructional, and there is every reason to oppose calls for national standards/curriculum/testing.

But what if the instructionists were to abandon their affection for a single set of standards uber alles, confining themselves to improving the content and methods of existing state school systems? How much of the education reform movement’s time should such efforts be allocated? Should there be a 50-50 split, as Greene and Ponnuru seem to be suggesting? Or should we favor curriculum reforms, as Stern advises?

For me, the answer to this question must be based on the expected return on our time and resources. Trying to “fix” the education being provided by a monopoly school system is like trying to “fix” a command economy. While occasional improvements will certainly be possible, ultimately, the effort is doomed. Even when excellent, proven methods or curricula are adopted in state schools, the incentive structure of the system provides no support for retaining  them. A couple of famous examples of this are the billion-dollar “Follow Through” curriculum experiment of the 1960s and ’70s, and the fabulously successful calculus instruction program developed by Jaime Escalante at California’s Garfield High in the 1980s. Follow Through demonstrated that one instructional system was far superior to more than 20 others across a host of criteria, and yet as soon as the experiment was completed most of the schools that had been using it ceased to do so. Escalante, after building a mathematics department that taught advanced skills to hundreds of low-income Hispanic students, was run out of the system by his peers. He simply set the bar too high, and the system had no incentive to try to maintain it. 

Consider, too, that even the best set of uniform curriculum standards, when coupled with an age-based grading system, does a terrible disservice to children. Gidget is not a widget. Kids are different — not just from one another but in their own performance across subjects. Marching students through a “high quality” uniform educational experience based on their age is not good pedagogy. It is, at best, good bureaucracy, making it easier on the paper-pushers running the system.

It is a free market education system — and only a free market education system — that can automatically identify, nurture, expand, and replicate best practices, providing incentives for relentless improvement in content and methods, while also enjoying the flexibility to allow each child to progress at his or her own optimal speed through each subject. The for-profit tutoring industry, pioneered in Japan and spreading throughout the Western world, does not group or teach children based on their age, but rather by their performance in individual subjects.

This is why I cannot spend much of my time trying to improve the curricula in the monopoly schools. Even the best result is suboptimal and almost surely transitory as well. The worst result — a national curriculum that would eventually be dumbed down — would be a catastrophe.

So while the desire to do something now is strong, the futility of trying to fix a monopoly compels me to focus my attention where I think it can actually do real, lasting good. And that is on real market reform.

Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom has in the works a live debate on this topic. Stay tuned to this space for details.